In 1979, Alaska had the distinction of having the worst record for public safety of any of the 50 states. Villages in the rural areas of the state had the highest per capita loss of life and property due to accidental fire (not just within the United States, but the entire western world), and the highest per capita loss of life due to boating and related water accidents of any other state. In addition, Alaska faced challenges, due to remoteness, to the provision of medical and law enforcement assistance.
Since most of the 150 or so predominately native villages in Alaska are very small with a population of 80 to 500 residents and little or no tax base, few villages can afford to hire a local police officer. An approach was needed to village public safety problems that remained consistent with rural conditions, sensitive to ethnic lifestyles, cost effective and gave some reasonable promise of being successful over the long term.
The Village Public Safety Officer Program seeks to develop individuals with a broad array of public safety skills so that they can respond to most of the problems that arise. This approach means that the degree of expertise developed in any one field would be less than the skills developed by the urban policeman, fireman, paramedic, and the like. A basic fire suppression capability is developed for the generally small residences in village Alaska. Law enforcement skills emphasize response to alcohol abuse situations as well as enforcement of all federal, state, and local laws. Emergency medical skills dovetail with Community Health Aides which now exist in many villages. Search and rescue efforts involve organizing local men with boats and snow machines to assist the area-wide efforts of the state troopers. Water safety emphasizes the use of life jackets and other basic water safety aspects in conjunction with the Coast Guard. When a complex problem arises, these Village Public Safety Officers—so named to denote their broad range of skills—take the immediate measures required, and then call for appropriate outside assistance, such as the state troopers when a serious crime occurs.
The Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) is an employee of regional nonprofit Native corporations and is trained by the Alaska State Troopers. The Alaska State Troopers provide technical support and oversight and provide ongoing training. The community leaders are able to establish priorities of the enforcement and public safety activities on a village by village basis.
Statistically speaking, the program has resulted in an approximately 25 percent reduction in loss of life due to water related activities, a 50 percent reduction in loss of life due to fire and an ever increasing number of successful search and rescues. Although alcohol abuse continues to be a problem, the quality of life in the rural villages has improved due to the stabilizing effect of having a VPSO in the village.